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SPJ Slams NBC for ‘Checkbook Journalism’

Network paid for father and son’s Brazil-to-U.S. flight after custody battle to get interview

On Monday, the “Today” show aired parts of an exclusive interview it conducted on a plane carrying David Goldman and his son back to the U.S. from Brazil, where Goldman had just won a custody battle.

Wondering who paid for the flight? NBC.

The Society of Professional Journalists then fired off a press release slamming NBC News for what it considered “checkbook journalism” – the kind often practiced by the tabloid magazines and TMZs of the media world, but not normally pinned to more “traditional” news operations like NBC.

SPJ called it an appalling breach of “ethical journalism guidelines.”

“By making itself part of a breaking news story on which it was reporting — apparently to cash in on the exclusivity assured by its expensive gesture — NBC jeopardized its journalistic independence and credibility in its initial and subsequent reports,” SPJ said. “In effect, the network branded the story as its own, creating a corporate and promotional interest in the way the story unfolds. NBC’s ability to report the story fairly has been compromised by its financial involvement.”

The problem, of course, is this happens all the time, and not just at NBC or TMZ. Read this account of how CNN obtained its “exclusive” with Jasper Schuringa, the terror-plot foiling hero aboard Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Here’s the full statement from SPJ:

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee is appalled NBC News breached widely accepted ethical journalism guidelines by providing the plane that carried David Goldman and his son Sean back to the United States from Brazil after a high-profile custody battle.

NBC conducted an exclusive interview with David Goldman during the flight it financed and another exclusive interview once the Goldmans returned to the United States.

Journalists know this practice as "checkbook journalism."

The SPJ Code of Ethics urges journalists to act independently by avoiding bidding for news and by avoiding conflicts of interest.

By making itself part of a breaking news story on which it was reporting — apparently to cash in on the exclusivity assured by its expensive gesture — NBC jeopardized its journalistic independence and credibility in its initial and subsequent reports. In effect, the network branded the story as its own, creating a corporate and promotional interest in the way the story unfolds. NBC’s ability to report the story fairly has been compromised by its financial involvement.

"The public could rightly assume that NBC News bought exclusive interviews and images, as well as the family’s loyalty, with an extravagant gift," Ethics Committee Chairman Andy Schotz said.

The news media’s duty is to report news, not help create it. The race to be first should not involve buying — directly or indirectly — interviews, an unseemly practice that raises questions of neutrality, integrity and credibility.

"Mixing financial and promotional motives with an impartial search for truth stains honest, ethical reporting," Schotz said. "Checkbook journalism has no place in the news business."

The SPJ Code of Ethics also urges journalists to "clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct."

"NBC must now, belatedly, explain why it entangled its news reporting and corporate interests in this story, as well as the terms of any deal it made with the Goldman family," Schotz said. "NBC also is ethically bound to adequately disclose its active role in the story in each of its future reports on the Goldmans."